THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

James Heffernan Headshot

What Does "Pro-Life" Really Mean?

Posted: Updated:

Isn't it time we tackled this question?

Isn't it time that those who really care about life seized the word from the Republican right and reclaimed its true meaning?

Now that Mitt Romney has won the Iowa straw poll by claiming that he's turned "pro-life" after his long years in the pro-choice wilderness of Massachusetts paganism, isn't it time we stated loud and clear what "pro-life" means in the mouth of a right-wing candidate?

It means pro-coercion. It means pro-criminalization. It means seeking to punish women for exercising a right that for more than thirty years has been treated as Constitutional. (You can't make abortion illegal without prosecuting, convicting, and jailing the women who choose it as well as the doctors who perform it.) And for a majority of the Supreme Court, it means banning a procedure that may be necessary for the preservation of a woman's health. According to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion in a recent case involving the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, the act "expresses respect for the dignity of human life" by forbidding second-trimester removal of the fetus in an intact condition while allowing it to be ripped apart inside the uterus and yanked out piece by piece -- a far more dangerous procedure, as leading experts in obstetrics and gynecology have repeatedly testified.

Since that's what "pro-life" really means for those on the right, here's what Democrats should start saying to them: if you're not pro-health, you're not pro-life. You're just pro-criminalization. No matter what the risks to a woman's health, you want to turn motherhood from a labor of love into a labor of law.

The contempt for health displayed by Justice Kennedy's ruling is merely the tip of the iceberg of indifference that the Republican right sits on whenever they see any waves of what looks like "socialized medicine" headed their way. President Bush, who considers himself a quintessentially "pro-life" president, has already stated that he will veto any major increase in federal funding for children's health. He also has the perfect solution for the 46 million Americans who have no health insurance: if they need medical help, they can go an emergency room! Who needs federal help?

We might explain the president's opposition to more funding for children's health by reminding ourselves that conservative support for "life" typically ends at the moment of birth, when the embattled foetus becomes a baby protected by the long-established laws of the land. But even if the laws of the land could guarantee all babies a healthy start in life (dream on, friends!), does the president not realize that foetuses as well as babies need medical attention? Does he not know that a major cause of premature births, which can cost more than $50,000 a day to manage, is the lack of adequate pre-natal care? Does he not know that the United States beats FORTY other countries -- including Cuba -- in infant mortality? In 2004, the death rate here was 6.8 deaths for every live birth, and among black Americans it was 13.7. In addition, compared with other industrialized nations, we lose a higher percentage of our babies before their first birthday.

Beyond infancy the picture gets no better. Though Americans spend far more on health care per person than any other country in the world does, we don't have the life expectancy to show for it. According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics, a baby born here in 2004 will live an average of just under 78 years, less than it will in FORTY-ONE other countries. Back in 1984, our life expectancy put us behind just TEN other countries. This is progress?

For all these problems I have no quick solution. I don't believe that by itself, more federal funding for medical care will make us all healthier. For one thing, we're hauling too much freight. According to Sam Harper, an epidemiologist at McGill University in Montreal, about two-thirds of American adults are overweight and nearly one third are obese. Anyone who thinks we can't do better should learn how Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee lost 120 pounds. While shedding pounds, we should also be chipping away harder at certain kinds of illness. According to Christopher Murray, head of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, we should develop new ways of reducing cancer, heart disease, and lung disease, and we also need stepped up efforts to cut down on tobacco use, reduce cholesterol, control blood pressure, and regulate blood sugar.

Along with these steps, increased federal funding could surely produce better results than the present system gives us. Private health insurance companies do business not to preserve or promote the nation's health but chiefly to make a profit, which gives them a powerful motive to deny claims whenever they can. (In one segment of Michael Moore's SICKO, a conscience-stricken former health company official reveals to a Congressional Committee that she got a fat pay hike for denying a claim for an operation that would have saved the life of a patient who ended up dying without it. ) If socialized medicine is so bad, why are the people of so many other countries living healthier and longer than we do? And if federal funding is so bad, when will our Senators and members of Congress stop asking taxpayers to fund their own health insurance?

Let's face it: we've not only got federally funded health care for all the Capitol Hill politicians who spend their time wrangling about it; we've also got socialized medicine for everyone 65 and over. It's called Medicare, and in spite of all the dire warnings sounded when it was launched more than forty years ago, it has worked well: a single-payer system that provides basic benefits and thus a platform on which private health insurance companies are free to build and market more benefits for those who wish to buy them.

If we can guarantee basic medical care for everyone in this country who is 65 or more, why can't we guarantee it for babies and children? If we can spend five hundred billion dollars on a war that has now cost the lives of 3700 American soldiers and robbed the health of at least 30,000 more, why can't we spend a small fraction of that amount to give every baby born in America a healthy start? Where will the money come from, you ask? We can raise the federal taxes on tobacco and booze, for a start. As a regular wine-drinker, I'd be only too happy to toast the health of brand new American citizens with every glass.

In any case, what I have to say to all "pro-life" Republicans is very simple: if you're not pro-health, you're not pro-life.